Monday, August 29, 2011

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral...Fungus, Protist, Cyanobacteria...

"So are those...plants? Or what?"

A question I answer a fair amount in my job. What are they usually asking about? Anemones. "Well, they're animals. They're relatives of jellyfish and corals." "OK...huh? are they animals?"

This next question, the how or why are they animals question, is more difficult to answer. Anemones, fortunately eat and move so you can tell people that without having to get into the difference between a cell wall and cell membrane. Something else I find myself trying to explain a fair amount is the fact that seaweeds are not plants.

Seaweeds are protists in the family that eventually led to land plants so calling them plants is a bit like calling an amoeba an animal. The kingdom protist eventually led to all land plants, animals and fungus so it's a very diverse group that has been around for millions of years. Most protists are unicellular but things like kelp are multicellular protists. Seaweeds typically get energy from sunlight the way plants do but they have some serious structural differences. They don't have roots, leaves, stems, flowers or any of the parts we associate with plants.

The matter is further confused when you introduce the term algae. Algae is generally used to describe seaweeds (plant-like protists) that are unicellular and generally collect on surfaces (surfaces of rocks or surfaces of the water or that junk on your home aquarium). Now most algaes are protists but some are...actually bacteria. Bacteria are not even in the same family at all. They're just something, while alive, very different from eukaryotes like plants and animals and seaweed.

So why do I care about this? Well I think it's inherently interesting. But I think the reason I want to teach people about this confusing nonsense is that I believe it makes one appreciate how much more complex the living world is than you might first imagine. Whenever we talk about "animals" vertebrates get the lion's share (get it?!) of the air time. Vertebrates are one small family accounting for something like 4-5% of living animal species. Similarly, whenever we talk about animals and plants we're missing protists, which themselves are incredibly diverse, fungi, cyanobacteria, and y'know, archaea which is a whole kingdom. Archaea may not be terribly diverse, but still we're missing a whole kingdom most folks don't even know exists.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pollen Pants!

Both places I visited last weekend, Drumlin Farm and the Boston Nature Center, had a ton of bees which is great because...well because bees are great. And they have pantaloons! If you've never noticed take a close look the next time you see a honey bee or bumble bee and see if it's got pants on. The orange spots on the bee's legs in the image are clumps of collected pollen. Industrious little critters.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Drumlin Farm

Over the last weekend I visited Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, MA. Most of the fauna I saw was of the domesticated variety but I did get a few good shots.

Drumlin farm is a Mass Audubon site and still a working farm. There is an entry fee but it's nominal. I believe it's $6 for adults. In addition to the farm part of Drumlin Farm where you can check out their woolly lambs, goats, pigs, cows and chickens (that modifier didn't carry, really just the lambs are woolly) the site contains a small nature preserve that is kept as a meadow. It's actually a pretty great place to see bugs and birds. Plus, they've got a drumlin!

What's a drumlin, you ask? Well a drumlin is a glacially deposited hill usually made of sand or gravel. Y'see, thousands of years ago when New England was all just big ol' glaciers they would slide around and pick stuff up like rocks and other sediment and carry it, sometimes for hundreds of miles. Scientists are still arguing (one of my favorite sentence beginners) about the exact formation process but it's generally agreed that the drumlins show the final movement of the glacier just as it melts. As it melts it drops piles of stones and sediment which form the drumlins. The Boston Harbor Islands are actually the worlds only submerged drumlins. Wow!

So here's some wildlife you might see if you go to Drumlin Farm:

These white butterflies are all over Massachusetts this time of year. We also saw some swallow-tail and monarchs.

The huge amount of golden rod is home to a ton of hymenoptera, most of them bees. But we also saw several wasps, including this one.

A coleoptera about to launch off my hand. It looked a bit like a firefly only quite a bit bigger. I spent a good while trying to get a decent image of this little guy (or gal) but the tall grass kept getting in the way and messing up the focus. I finally decided to just pick it up and was lucky enough to snap this milliseconds before it took flight. It's pretty cool to see the wing coverings common to all beetles spread out and it's wings ready for flying.

A goldfinch munching away on some thistle. Definitely check out the web album for an embiggened version of this. I think it's one of the best photos of a bird I've ever shot.

And of course, no trip into the wild could be complete without an unidentified weird bug. Anyone have a clue what this thing is? It would run a bit and then wave its first two legs around like it was casting a spell.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Natural History Appreciation Safety, Plus More Toads

I'm back from my trip to the Adirondacks. It was a really nice trip, got in some great hikes. However, on one of our hikes we got slightly lost in the woods. Obviously, I'm fine, I'm here typing away, and looking back everything was more or less under control. We took a wrong turn onto another trail, probably a series of canoe carries, and were very easily able to retrace our steps and get back towards our trail-head.

But it reminded me that when we start to become fairly experienced hikers we can forget the simple safety rules. So I thought I would send out this natural history appreciation PSA: even if you think everything will be fine (we did that morning) bring more water and snacks than you think you'll need and tell someone exactly where you're going and when you plan to be back. That doesn't mean "we're going somewhere around Saranac," it means exactly where. It will at least give you the peace of mind that someone knows where you are even if you aren't in any actual danger.

And now, on to the images:

A wood frog, the first of probably 60 or so amphibians we saw on this hike. I was surprised at how many more frogs and toads we saw compared to the Whites. The Adirondacks are just that much more remote and therefore that much cleaner, which keeps it a great place to be an amphibian. Poor little fellows and their permeable skin.

Some holes in a tree. Made by beetles, probably.

The hike passed by several ponds, further making the area an ideal home for amphibians. I wasn't able to get an image but we saw a mink at this one. And...

a thrill seeking caterpillar.

The first of many toads. Some kind of Bufo sp. Apparently they frequently interbreed and produce hybrid toads despite their unique mating calls.

We saw several frogs at this pond.

At this point in the hike is when the toads got really crazy. We must have seen about 40 of them in a quarter mile range or so. They were all tiny, so probably having just metamorphosed. Again, they look like some Bufo sp. or hybrids.

There really were so many that we had to be careful not to step on the tiny little vertebrates.

The next day we hiked up Mount Ampersand, one of "high peaks" of the Adirondacks. We didn't see as much fauna but the view was...pretty nice. I believe that is Middle Saranac in the image.

After coming back to the city I've had some nature withdrawal so I've been out walking and already have some new images. Stay tuned the rest of the week for some Boston natural history.